Case in point: For most of the 49ers’ eight-game winning streak to open the season, the perception was that they were doing so with a mere game manager at quarterback. The perception was that life would become much more difficult for the 49ers when opponents forced Jimmy Garoppolo to beat them. Based on what we knew then, it seemed logical.
But it’s December now, the 49ers are amid the toughest stretch of their schedule, and Garoppolo is being asked to carry more of the offense. And Jimmy G is ballin’. And his team, though no longer undefeated, looks more complete and impressive than it did when it was streaking.
On Sunday, in one of the most important matchups of the season, San Francisco went to New Orleans and won a wild and spectacular game, 48-46, at the Superdome. It was an eye-opening performance because the 49ers had to win with their vaunted defense tied behind their back. It seemed the Saints possessed the ideal formula to win. Drew Brees threw for 349 yards and five touchdowns, and the Saints racked up 465 yards. They put extreme pressure on Garoppolo to throw San Francisco to victory. And Garoppolo was up for the challenge.
Considering the stakes as the 49ers fight for the No. 1 seed in the NFC, it was the best performance of Garoppolo’s career. He completed 26 of 35 passes for 349 yards and four touchdowns, and he calmly engineered a drive in the final 53 seconds to set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning 30-yard field goal.
For certain, tight end George Kittle did most of the work with a brilliant run after the catch for a 39-yard gain that put San Francisco in field goal position. But Garoppolo was on time and accurate with the throw. All game, he made the simple plays consistently and took command when he needed to be special. His only turnover came on a tipped-pass interception that wasn’t his fault. It’s almost impossible to visit the Superdome and win a shootout against Brees, but Garoppolo exited with his fist in the air.
He was defiant, too. When Fox sideline reporter Pam Oliver referenced the theory about beating San Francisco — force Garoppolo to try to win the game with his arm — the quarterback took advantage of the opportunity to answer his critics.
“Let’s keep that theory going,” he shot back.
This isn’t a one-game aberration. Over the past six weeks, Garoppolo has elevated his play in a manner that redefines the possibilities for his team. His stats over this span: 1,756 passing yards (292.7 per game), 16 touchdowns, four interceptions. He is completing 69.1 percent of his passes.
Garoppolo has thrown for at least 248 yards in five of those six games, including a 424-yard effort against Arizona. And he is not just feasting on the Arizonas of the NFL. The 49ers have had to play Seattle, Green Bay, Baltimore and New Orleans in this stretch. No one is going to rearrange the list of MVP candidates because Jimmy G is hot. But he shouldn’t be considered a weak link anymore.
San Francisco can win a championship with this version of Garoppolo directing the offense. He is closer to the franchise quarterback the 49ers hoped they were getting when they traded for him in 2017 and then signed him to a $137.5 million contract after only five starts.
Then Garoppolo tore the ACL in his left knee early last season. When he returned, he struggled through a training camp in which he threw five straight interceptions in practice and posted a 0.0 passer rating in a preseason game. It led Coach Kyle Shanahan to take it slow with Garoppolo as he regained confidence in his knee, learned to trust his offensive line again and eliminated rust.
Garoppolo improved, and the 49ers boosted the receiving corps around him, acquiring Emmanuel Sanders from Denver. Sanders was brilliant against New Orleans, finishing with seven receptions, 157 yards and a touchdown. Now, with Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Kittle as the primary targets, the passing game is becoming a solid complement to the 49ers’ intricate rushing attack.
Richard Sherman, the outspoken San Francisco cornerback, has barked at critics of his quarterback throughout the season. So after a game in which the 49ers still won without the defense leading them, Sherman shook off the “unfortunate” defensive performance and praised an offense he has long supported.
“Thank goodness for our offense,” he told reporters. “Thank goodness for Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, obviously, Kyle Shanahan. The entire offense made plays when we had to, made it hard down the stretch. Obviously, there were some things in there, some circumstances that you can’t control, but we’re thankful that we got the win. It’s a great team win.”
It’s a great team win with Garoppolo front and center. On a squad with a deep stable of running backs and a fearsome defensive line, the quarterback doesn’t have to be the superstar. But there is also no rule saying he can’t be from time to time.
Keep that theory about game-managing Garoppolo going at your own risk.
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